By Maegan Clearwood
Glitzy courtesans, bumbling old men, and dreamy-eyed lovers will be singing and twirling their way across a vibrant stage this weekend in a rib-cracking production of Stephen Sondheim’s one and only “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
Based on the Roman comedies of Plautus, the musical tells the story of a slave, Psuedolus (played by sophomore Stephan Jordan) and his quest for freedom. When he offers to help the naive, appropriately named Hero (played by sophomore Mike Zurawski) woo the beautiful courtesan, Philia (played by freshman Nina Sharp) in exchange for his freedom, chaos ensues.
The young lovers are surrounded by a cast of equally colorful characters, including Hero’s self-absorbed parents (sophomore Joe Rittenhouse and junior Samantha Scannell), a “buyer and seller of beautiful women,” (sophomore Antoine Jordan), a neurotic slave (freshman Josh Smith), a narcissistic captain (sophomore Benjamin de Seingalt), and a doddering old man (sophomore Chris Kraisser).
The musical not only requires a diverse cast, but also a series of energetic song and dance numbers and an equally eye-catching aesthetic design. For director and acting professor Jason Rubin, this meant extensive planning.
“We wanted to open with a musical this season in honor of the new theatre,” said Rubin. “I’d gone through some [musicals], but they were too ambitious for us, breaking in a new theater. I thought of this show in relation to ‘Troy Women’ for variations on classical themes.”
“Forum,” with its comedic story line and one-set stage design, was the perfect choice. Rubin, however, was prepared for challenges.
“Even though it’s a one set show, it’s big,” he said. “Even the simplest show takes time. It takes practice to make a show look simple, but there are still so many components, even if the audience doesn’t see everything.”
The workable set design was not the only element that drew Rubin’s attention to “Forum.” The musical has “the classic ingredients of farce,” he said. “That’s why we have a man in drag, comic business with a bevy of beauties, a lot of slamming doors, and big chase scene. I hope we exhaust the audience so that every time we get to a song, the audience can take a breather.”
“Forum” marks the first musical that Washington College has performed since 2003, and it requires the integration of many more elements than other shows.
“This is one of the first big shows that the drama department has had to put on, and it’s been such a learning experience for everyone involved, because it’s so much more intense both on and off stage,” said junior assistant stage manager Maggie Farell. “The most challenging part is that everyone is involved with more than one aspect of the show, so there’s just a lot of work to be done.”
“We don’t do musical often because they’re killers,” said Rubin. “There are all the practicalities of getting a show, then add singing and dancing to that, so it’s exhausting for us.” He plans on bringing musical theatre to the WC stage every two or three years, “because we know the students love to do them.”
As the first musical WC has seen in some years, encouraging students to audition was far from difficult. Casting took place at the end of the fall semester, and rehearsals began immediately following winter break.
“Casting was relatively calm because we had a lot of people audition, so we had enough people to pick and choose for different roles,” said Rubin. “Schedules were difficult…It was rare that we had a full cast on many days.”
Rehearsals proved to be a demanding yet rewarding process for cast and crew members.
“It started off kind of slow, as all shows tend to,” said Kraisser. “It’s a large cast, but the fact that a lot of people knew each other beforehand made it easier to work together. For the most part, we worked together pretty well.”
Although coming to practice after a long day of labs, classes, and work could be stressful, cast members made the process as fun as possible.
“It’s a good cast, a jolly cast,” Rubin said. “They’re a lot of fun. When they’re energetic, they’re terrific.”
The talented cast provided a strong foundation when it came to the directing process.
“Jason is a good director,” Kraisser said. “He’s very detailed in his direction. He will get up onstage and say ‘I want you to do it this way,’ but he gives us enough freedom to make our own choices. He has a specific way he wants us to do it, but in that way, there are a lot of styles we can do in it in.”
“There are tricks we do to get actors to do things, but the hallmark around here is to have shows that are fresh and spontaneous,” Rubin said. “To do a comedy, you need comedic timing. The actors give me a lot of stuff, and I sculpt it. I feel I’m molding them, but I have the overall view. I see the arc of the production, and I have the vision of it, and since I’m set designer, I can articulate that vision of it literally, using this very colorful set as a clue to the environment that we are creating.”
The set, complete with three two-story buildings and intricate, patterned details, is an integral part of the production. Constructing such a complex design, however, meant extensive work for everyone involved.
“It’s been a challenge because our technical director, Larry Stahl, constructed the set out of steel, and he’s the main person who knows how to do it. He’s primarily in charge of putting the steel frames together,” Rubin said. “He’s such a good teacher to the students that, in the long run, we’ll be able to take advantage of their knowledge. As the department grows bigger again, we’ll have a bigger work force.”
The hard work on the part of the crew made the entire process much smoother. The team consists of drama professor and choreographer Polly Sommerfeld, musical director Kate Bennet ’89, lighting designer Josh Schulman ’00, associate lighting designer Cindy Adams ’06, technical director and drama professor Larry Stahl, and costume designer Paul Foltz. Also helping behind the scenes are stage manager and junior Ed Hoegg and three assistant stage managers, Farell and sophomores Katie Muldowney and Maggie Matthews. Senior Jake Deal and Ian Trusheim ’07 are on instrumentals, giving the show an extra musical punch.
For Farell, the most rewarding part of the four-month experience has been “seeing the evolution of it, seeing the actors come together and figure each other out and seeing the set come up from the ground…It’s a show that I’m really proud of on a lot of levels, and I think the cast feels that too.”
With such an enthusiastic production team, both on and offstage, audiences have much to look forward to.
“Audiences can expect a riot of laughter for two acts and great musical numbers,” Kraisser said. “There are incredibly cartoony and zany characters, and a strange set of clichés that work marvelously perfectly together.”
This bubbling, high-energy musical promises to have something for everyone. It is rare that a musical literally speaks for itself, but as the ensemble so appropriately sings, “Forum” has “something familiar, something peculiar, something for everybody: Comedy tonight.”
“Forum” is gracing Decker Theater in Gibson Center for the Arts on April 15, 16, and 17 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $8 for adults and $5 for students. To reserve tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org.